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It’s rare for a marketing executive shuffle to inspire the kind of coverage that hit when Netflix confirmed that chief marketing officer Bozoma Saint John was exiting the streamer after less than two years in one of Hollywood’s buzziest and most demanding marketing jobs.
After the publication of congenial statements from both sides — “I’ve loved working with Boz and have been inspired by her creativity and energy,” said Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, with Saint John adding, “It’s been a transformative two-year experience for which I will always be grateful” — came reports of behind-the-scenes friction. Some alleged that she focused too much time on personal brand-building and side hustles like The Badass Workshop and leading a Harvard Business School short program. Others indicated that a potential move to Paris caused a rift with Sarandos. There were other stories, like The Hollywood Reporter reported last summer, about senior staffers in Netflix’s marketing department being fired after complaining about the management on Slack. (Netflix denied that the messages targeted members of management and said they were instead about peers.)
Saint John is used to the attention. She counts 388,000 followers on Instagram, a platform she utilized in the days after her exit to add to the swirl by declaring her freedom. “I’m free in every sense … physically, emotionally, and mentally. That is my super power. I’ve fought hard for it, and believe me when I say it’s still a daily struggle to maintain my freedom. Especially when the world tries to make me feel like I have to shift and change to fit into somebody else’s standard,” she wrote on March 7. “I refuse to bow down because my very being is in active revolt, so I expand.”
A few days later, she celebrated being selected to the American Marketing Association’s Marketing Hall of Fame. “Them: She’s out. God: Nah, bih. She’s in. Matter of fact, she’s in THE MARKETING HALL OF FAME,” she posted of the honor. “Btw, for anyone who is contemplating your journey and wondering how/where/when to do YOU… do it right now. Live life urgently. I am a living, breathing, walking, sashaying testimony that it’s possible to do it all on your terms.”
Saint John practiced what she preaches by stepping out Tuesday for an EMILY’s List panel at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills where, at one point, she literally sashayed across the stage while showing off her ensemble, a neon pink jumpsuit. Before she did that, Saint John walked the red carpet and stopped for a brief interview with The Hollywood Reporter where she opened up about the exit, responded to critics of her personal brand, and shared the “cathartic” creative work she’s focusing on.
This is your first appearance since leaving Netflix. What can you say about why you left and how you’re feeling now?
There are so many things happening in the world, right? There’s a shift happening for all of us, and if you’re doing something you love, fantastic, keep doing that. For me, I was doing everything I loved. The entertainment space has always been so exciting to me. I came to it after working in music, in advertising, and working at PepsiCo, a consumer-packaged-goods company. Netflix was such an awesome place to work, especially during a pandemic when everyone was home and seeking out new ways to be entertained, or in ways that maybe they hadn’t even thought of before. It was connecting the world. Think of Squid Game and how a show could come out of Korea and entertain the whole world. It was just magical. But now, I needed a pivot in my own life, too, and there are other things that I want to accomplish. You’ve got to know when the time is up and to keep it moving.
As with anyone who leaves a high-profile job, news stories follow. Some reports cited criticism that you elevated your personal brand too much while in the job. Can you respond to that criticism?
Here’s the thing: I live out loud. I recognize that there are not a lot of Black women who are in these positions. Do I wish that sometimes I could be “just like everyone else”? Of course, who doesn’t want to be? But the truth of the matter is, I’m not. In these spaces, there’s nothing about me that is like anybody else. I recognize that I’m going to be talked about and sometimes I’m going to be talked about negatively because there’s not an understanding of where I’m coming from, the culture I represent, the ways that I am. And those things feel like friction.
My hope now is that there are more of us who are different. And, by the way, that doesn’t just apply to Black women. It applies to everybody. I think everybody’s wearing a mask, figuratively, so I wish more of us would be able to [take it off] and really be exactly who we are. That way, I wouldn’t seem so strange and so other.
Did you read those stories? Did they get to you at all?
Oh yeah. I read everything. That is the challenge of being a marketer, I consume so much information all of the time that I can’t avoid it. I also want to know what people are saying. Sometimes I use it as fuel because I’m like, look, if you want to talk about my personal brand and you want to talk about the things that I’m doing, I hope that maybe even shining a light on that will encourage somebody else. It might feel negative to me, but maybe it’s encouraging to somebody else who is just, like, “Man, I want to do what I want to do, I want to say the things that I want to say.” If more people were allowed to do that, maybe then I wouldn’t be seen as so different.
Other stories cited friction between you and Ted Sarandos over a potential move to Paris. Was that ever an issue?
Oh no. Oh my God. I love Paris. No, never, never. In fact, I think my first trip at Netflix was to Paris, but the pandemic happened and it didn’t make any sense. The long answer is that I tried and then we went into another lockdown so it didn’t make a lot of sense to be in Paris while being stuck at home. I have a 12-year-old daughter and it would be impossible to be able to manage all of that. That’s the long answer.
Back to the pivot. What does the future hold? Has the phone been ringing?
A little bit, yeah. Yes.
Can you give me any insight into what you want to do next? Have you made any decisions?
I’m taking a break. There are so many other things I want to explore. I’m writing a book that’s being published early next year. It’s my memoir, called The Urgent Life [from Viking]. It covers the last months of my husband’s life before he passed away from cancer. I will share what I learned through it in the hope that people can learn something from my experience. It’s been very cathartic for me. On top of that, I have my [The Badass Workshop] as well as my Harvard class. But right now, I’m taking a break.
If and when you do decide, do you think it will be another marketing job?
I’m in love with marketing. I don’t do it just because it’s a job or career. I do it because I really love it. I wake up, I think about it. I watch TV, see ads and think, “They should have done x, y or z,” or I think, “My God, that was amazing.” My mind is always working that way. We’ll see if something else pops up, maybe in a new industry. I’ve been in six already.
We’re here today for a political organization, have you considered politics?
I have loved EMILY’s List for as long as I can remember. I did an event for them when I was at Endeavor. My father was a politician back in Ghana, so I was the kid at 12 years old talking about the differences in political systems in Venezuela versus Argentina. That was us at home, so I’ve always been involved in politics. Right now, I’m working with the president of Ghana on the diaspora. He’s made me an ambassador to the diaspora. [Political work] has always been something worth looking at, and I don’t know if it ever becomes a main thing for me but I certainly want to be involved in any capacity.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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